Sail The Southeast Alaska Salmon Angler’s Love Boats
The following appears in the March issue of Alaska Sporting Journal:
BY BRIAN KELLY
Every year the panhandle of Southeast Alaska buzzes with tourist activity, thanks to the many cruise ships that sail through this region. While the cruise ship scene isn’t something most hardcore salmon anglers have their heart set on, the many stops these behemoth floating people carriers make can provide visitors a taste of the world-class salmon fishing that is available in Cruise Ship Alley. Here we will take a look at three ports that, depending on the calendar, can provide access to several of the five species of Pacific salmon, with a focus on timing and tackle to pack for Chinook and coho.
The first stop on the cruise ship tour usually begins with Ketchikan. This town makes its living on cruise ship tourism and stopping by Ray Troll’s Soho Coho Art Gallery on Creek Street is a must when in town. The creator of “Spawn Till You Die” – along with many other Alaskan fish- themed artworks – is a true gem.
The best fishing opportunity for a day- tripping tourist takes place at Whitman Lake, which is about 8 miles from town. The folks at the Southern Southeast Regional Aquaculture Association operate a hatchery below the lake and annually plant 700,000 Chinook and 400,000 silver smolts in the facility’s outflow on Herring Cove.
Parking is available roadside and the area is open to fishing below the highway bridge. Follow the well-worn footpaths and other anglers will guide you to the place to wet a line. Since this area is in saltwater, it is tidally influenced, so check the tide charts to try and time the incoming tide for the best action.
The Chinook run typically starts in late May and lasts right through July. Even though these are hatchery fish, they are heavily managed by Alaska Department of Fish and Game, so check the website for the latest emergency orders and regulations.
Coho tend to show up mid-August and go right on through the month of September. As with the Chinook, check the latest EOs and regs, but coho returns tend to be strong in this area, with a typical daily limit of six fish per angler.
While the town of Petersburg does not host the big ships directly, many of the cruise lines anchor offshore and tender willing tourists into town. I would highly recommend this adventure! I spent a week in Petersburg this past September (Alaska Sporting Journal, December 2022) and loved every minute of it.
As with Ketchikan, salmon runs are enhanced with fish from an SSRAA hatchery at Crystal Lake. Annual plants include 600,000 Chinook and 150,000 coho, which have similar run timing as the Whitman Lake fish.
The place to focus your salmon-fishing efforts is at the Blind River Rapids, which is a short 13-mile drive from town. There is a well-maintained U.S. Forest Service parking lot just off Mitkof Highway and a raised wooden trail that will take you to the river.
This is a unique area in that the stretch below the rapids is heavily influenced by the tide and the large pool above the rapids serves as a holding area for the salmon as they make their way back to the Crystal Lake Hatchery. The fish tend to be scattered during the high tide, as they are pushed upriver by the tidal surge, along with hungry seals hot on their tails! Focus on the low tide period and there will be plenty of resting fish to target above the rapids.
The Chinook regulations are more relaxed here than other places in Alaska, with a nonresident angler allowed to harvest two kings over 28 inches per day, as well as two under 28 inches per day. Bait is allowed starting June 1 and the only restriction is that snagging is not allowed. With silver salmon, you are allowed six fish per day, with no size restrictions. A good day at the rapids means a sore back and full freezer!
Coastal Cold Storage is the fish processor in town that will fillet, pack and ship your fish home. They only ask that you gut, gill and wash down the fish cavity before dropping off your catch for processing. Located in the heart of Petersburg, it is a convenient stop on your way back to the boat.
While Alaska’s capital city isn’t often thought of as a salmon fishing destination, it may very well be the best of the bunch when it comes to Cruise Ship Alley. I first visited the area on a whim in 2016 and was blown away at the quality of the coho available.
As with the other stops on the tour, Juneau’s fantastic salmon fishing is thanks to the fish planted by the folks at the Douglas Island Pink and Chum, Inc. hatchery. This hatchery had its beginnings in 1975 and continues today with plants of 117 million chum (commercial focus), 1 million coho and 1 million Chinook at its main facility, along with 7 million sockeye at a remote facility in Snettisham.
The coho raised by DIPAC are a local strain from the Taku River system, which is south of town. These fish tend to grow larger than average, with returning adults weighing well into the teens and sometimes eclipsing the hallowed 20-pound mark!
While there is access directly at the hatchery, take the drive south out of town along Thane Road until you reach the roadside parking at Sheep Creek. The creek itself is only a short outflow, but the hatchery typically raises smolts in pens here. The fish will hang around this area as they swim through the Gastineau Channel. When the fish are in thick, you can see fish jumping along Thane Road as they move in with the tide. Run timing for these hard-charging coho typically starts in mid-August and goes through September, with a daily limit of six per day.
The Chinook focus typically is out at Fish Creek on Douglas Island. These fish tend to wander in from the north side through Fritz Cove and eventually back to the hatchery. As with the south side of town, the north side has plenty of access and pull-off spots next to Douglas Highway. Management of these Chinook varies every season, so be sure to check the ADFG website for EOs and the latest regulations before you head out. There is a designated hatchery zone where nonresidents can harvest Chinook without having to register their catch against the annual limit.
While downtown Juneau can get a bit hectic when a cruise boat is in town, the scenery, peace and quiet are something to behold when you get away from the city. I highly recommend three stops in the area: Order a white ale at Alaska Brewing Company, the cold smoked sockeye at Taku Fisheries and the hot smoked coho from Jerry’s Meats (also the best processor in town for your catch).
Since you’ll be traveling via cruise ship, packing light is a must. Fortunately, you don’t need a ton of gear for any of the aforementioned stops. Hardware anglers can keep their focus fairly tidy. A handful of 1?4-ounce hair jigs in pink, chartreuse or black will do the trick. Pack a box of spinners to include a couple Vibrax, blue or pink bell, plus some skirted Kodiak Customs in the same colors. And don’t leave home without a few pink Arctic Spinners. Multipiece pack rods are the way to go; Okuma makes a nice line of salmon-focused pack rods, or build your own from fly rod blanks.
Fly fishing is just as easy. Pack streamers, especially Dali Lamas (also spelled Dolly Llamas), in the same colors as the hair jigs. A full floating line with a 6- to 8-foot section of fluorocarbon leader will do the trick for both Chinook and coho. But if you feel the need to have the hottest fly for the upcoming season, check out Alaska Fly Fishing Goods. They are based in Juneau but have a pulse on the fishery in Southeast Alaska, with an excellent selection of flies and tackle.
One last tip from a traveling angler: Try packing oversized gym shoes instead of traditional wading boots. One of my long-time friends uses a pair of classic Converse Chuck Taylors because they don’t take up a lot of space in the bag and grip surprisingly well!
Happy sailing and happy fishing! ASJ